By Richard Thomas
Diehard whisky fans aren’t the only people who find themselves enjoying a vacation in the Speyside region, located as it is between Aberdeen and Inverness. The area is a gorgeous example of the Scottish landscape, one that includes Cairngorms National Park.
Yet it’s hard to imagine visiting Speyside without seeing a distillery or two, and therein lies the rub. By far the largest of the whisky regions of Scotland, Speyside presents dizzying choices to both the casual and serious whisky tourist. One way to approach the question of where to go first is to pay a visit to your favorite brand, and for a lot of people that would mean stopping in at The Glenlivet. After all, it’s the top-selling single malt in the U.S. and ranked second in the world.
Those numbers are part of the great juxtaposition that ought to demand a stop at The Glenlivet for anyone with an interest in whisky: it’s a big distillery, but also a beautifully remote one. Located less than a half a mile from the confluence of the rivers Livet and Avon, the distillery sits astride the sweeping vistas of an open green valley, with the nearest towns of any size a few miles off and out of sight. The Glenlivet offers its visitors as much to see from the Scottish scenery as from its own whisky-making.
Turning to the distillery, visitors will discover one of the big pluses immediately upon entry: unlike at some Speyside distilleries, tours are free. This guided tour is pretty standard fare, tailored to host distillery: how malt whisky is made, weaved into the stories of The Glenlivet Distillery itself and the valley it has called home since before it became a legal operation in 1824.
The Glenlivet’s history is another point of contrast for the visitor, because it traces its roots back to a pre-Excise Act of 1823, Scottish moonshine operation. If you poke around the grounds during your visit, you may find a tiny pot still embedded in a stone fire pit serving as a homage to those illicit times. A whisky distillery of one kind or another has been in operation on the general site of The Glenlivet ever since, with the brief exception of when it was mothballed during the Second World War (as so many Scottish distilleries were).
Yet the modern facility is exactly that: very modern. Everything has been tastefully done, with the grey stone walls suggesting Scotland’s antiquity, but it’s all very clean, straight and suggestive of superb efficiency. Those looking for a more genuinely historical experience might want to add a place like Strathisla to their list.
The high point of the tour of a distillery is usually the stillhouse, but at The Glenlivet the stillhouse might be the high point of your whole stay in Scotland. The huge panel windows offer a striking contrast between the tall, dominating copper of the rows of pot stills against the surrounding slopes, a sight worth taking in on its own right.
Visitors who are looking for a fine bottle of single malt to bring home with them should make a point of visiting The Glenlivet’s self-bottling center. Just ask the tour guide, because the room is opened for those who wish to use it after most tours. When I was there the offering was a cask strength 18 year old first-fill bourbon barrel whisky, a typical example.
Closing on a practical note, The Glenlivet Distillery has a cafe on the premises, offering a simple sandwich-and-soup style of fare. While the distillery is in an out of the way location and not the most convenient of drives to reach, you can plan your visit without having to worry about making a separate stop of lunch.